#11: Frida Kahlo and Identity

#11: Frida Kahlo and Identity


3 April, 2019

Last week, I spent a couple of hours wandering around the MFA Boston's Graciela Iturbide and Frida Kahlo exhibits. Graciela Iturbide is a Mexican photographer who describes her work as things "in therapy"--plants with IV bags at the Botanical Gardens of Oaxaca, communities coming together around a seasonal goat slaughter, a family burying a child. 

It makes sense, then, that Graciela Iturbide was the photographer hired to document all of the items Diego Rivera had kept locked up in a bathroom after the death of his partner Frida Kahlo. The photographs are astonishing: back braces seem to float against walls, a chart of human gestation shares a corner with a mirror, paint daubed on a hospital shirt. The items were, therapeutic, you can see a life lived inside and around them. The whole series feels intimate, sometimes too much--you don't want to look at the photographs of Frida Kahlo's demerol or her enemas, but then there's a poster of Stalin propped up against the wall next to them, and the whole thing resolves into something that feels like a life. 

And then Iturbide does the thing, the one thing that unlocks Frida Kahlo for me. She takes a photo of her own feet, looking rough after a recent surgery, the curator's note tells us, propped up on either side of the spigot. The image mirrors Kahlo's painting, 'Lo que el agua me dio,' and Iturbide puts herself, puts her hard-contrast camera and her own feet-in-pain, right up next to Frida's dreamy paints and her own feet-in-pain. 


I'm a first-generation Mexican American woman: I identify with Frida Kahlo. This is such a truism that I tried to pitch this essay to publications only to get a "This story, while interesting, has been covered so extensively elsewhere that it won't work for us." I like thinking about all the other girls who look like me that have written essays, or versions of it, and the desire I have to write out the feeling anyways.  

My identification with Frida Kahlo, like the identification that I find in the phrase "first-generation Mexican American," is uneasy, often uncomfortable. Kahlo is well known for her appropriation, adaptation, self-invention through the use of textiles from Native communities she doesn't belong to. Long tehuana dresses, rebozos, huipiles. Kahlo's mother was mestiza, yes, but the fancy house in Coyoacan, the German father, the schooling, all of it make it clear that Kahlo wasn't exactly participating in the same struggles of indigenous communities after the Porfiriato. Much of the most strident critiques of Kahlo center around this--her borrowed finery, her aesthetics-only identification with those who are oppressed.

It is also wildly, shame-inducingly familiar. 

Being Latinx, especially in largely white spaces, means that I've done a whole lot of identity-building. I've done a lot of the reaching for half-fitting signifiers, a lot of the searching out of easy little shorthands to explain myself in front of audiences that maybe don't have enough context anyways. It hasn't always gone well, or been pretty, or particularly politically conscious, or, even worked. This is maybe (probably) not exclusively a Latinx problem, or a mestizo problem, its largely a problem to do with identity and constructing it, and having limited vocabularies to explain all of ourselves to people who may or may not be so interested. 

But when I put my strange, awkward attempts at building an identity for myself that include and involve my race, my family's history, my gender, right up next to Kahlo's regular reinventions, wild experimentations, I see them springing from the same seed. Moving through the Kahlo exhibit feels like visiting myself in middle school, at a party freshman year of college, in that first rush of shame after I've exaggerated about myself in the fullness of my desire to be understood. 

Every time I've been to a Kahlo exhibit, there never fails to be at least one girl wearing her thin blonde hair in flower-studded braids looped over her head, an embroidered shirt gotten on vacation in Oaxaca. These girls aren't doing cultural appropriation much more than Kahlo was doing it, and I've never gotten the feeling its so much about the culture as it is in paying homage to her, to the things Kahlo has to say about femininity, about pain, but also because she was an artist of her own life. There's also something here, of course, about class, and the way bodies are racialized and gendered, and who gets to paint in a hospital shirt and who just has to worry about paying for it, but it mostly comes down to  Kahlo's genius. Her genius, I think, is at least in part that everyone feels a little territorial, a little bristly, a little like Kahlo is saying something about them that no one else might possibly understand.

And so maybe I'm being jealous, or maybe I'm right in wanting to draw some kind of hard line between these girls' understanding of her and mine, but I know at least that this flush of shame is mine, and I wish it were more private, that I didn't have to feel it in front of those that seem to have much more uncomplicated relationships with the painter than I do.  But still, there really are ways in which Frida's feet and my own share a space over time, are ghosts of each other in the bathtub, that her strange cobbled-together Mexicanness is closer to who I am than actual Mexicanness. Our motherlands are never quite what we want them to be, and Frida is no exception, but there is something there that feels intractable, mine, like belonging to an attempt at belonging.